The River Trail is a 10.4-mile loop trail that provides an opportunity for visitors to the western end of Congaree National Park to explore the Congaree River. Scouts and other groups often use the trail for an overnight backpacking trip, camping near the sandbar that is the real highlight of this hike.
In addition to visiting the river and sandbar, you walk by old-growth hardwoods that preservationists fought so hard to protect in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, and have an opportunity to visit the largest hardwood in the park, a cherrybark oak that is over 25 feet around and 125 feet high. Other highlights include a long trip through the park’s unique river levee forest, a walk along Boggy Gut, site of a famous haunt tale, and a hike along the bank of Duck Pond, a beautiful tupelo-cypress wetlands.
Due to its sheer length, opportunities abound for wildlife observation on the River Trail. On the hike, you may see deer and feral hog, and hear barred owl and red-shouldered hawk calling. The river levee ecosystem includes a wide variety of vegetation and wildlife that can be difficult to find elsewhere in the park, including breeding American Redstart and Swainson’s Warbler, one of the more elusive park residents. A long stay at the sandbar provides an opportunity to see river residents, including Belted Kingfisher, Osprey, and Bald Eagle.
To reach the River Trail, you actually travel on three other park trails. The Boardwalk Loop Trail starts at the Visitor Center breezeway (refer to the park’s trail guide available outside the Visitor Center). Follow the boardwalk south for .7 miles. Then, just past a small bridge, the Boardwalk Loop Trail turns left.
Pick up the Weston Lake Loop Trail instead by continuing straight ahead (south). The park marks the Weston Lake Loop Trail with signs with the number “3”. Follow the Weston Lake Loop Trail number “3” signs for approximately 0.5 miles until you come to a sign indicating that you are at the trail junction with the Oakridge Trail. As you will see on the sign, you have now hiked 1.2 miles from the Visitor Center.
The park marks the Oakridge Trail with signs with the number “4”. Follow the Oakridge Trail for 0.5 miles to Bridge F over Hammond Gut. You will come to the River Trail junction just past the bridge; turn right and follow the signs marked with the number “5”. Some of these signs include GPS coordinates to assist in rescues. This guide describes the 6.3-mile portion of the trail that will eventually return you to this trail junction.
Though the sites in this guide are numbered, there will not be any signs for these sites on the trail. Because the park is designated a national wilderness area, signs and other human impacts are limited. Most of the numbered sites correspond to natural or man-made features, so their location should be clear. For some sites, the numbering on the map provides only an approximate site location.
River Trail Map (pdf)
Site 1: Oakridge Trail Junction
The River Trail branches right from the Oakridge Trail along the bank of Hammond Gut. A “gut” is a local term for a small, short floodplain stream that has clearly defined banks. Guts are distinguished from creeks by being shallower and shorter in length. They are often dry or stagnant during the summer and early fall. Guts seem to wind aimlessly over the floodplain, sometimes connecting different parts of the same creek together, or connecting one oxbow lake to another. Guts have an important role in floods. They transport water from the Congaree River throughout the floodplain in the initial stage of a flood, and then channel water so that it can flow more quickly back to the river and main creeks as the flooding subsides.
On this stretch of trail, the dominant groundcover in spring and early summer can be Spotted Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not; look for its suspended orange blossoms in the early summer. It is called touch-me-not since its seeds explode from the flower when the flower is touched or brushed against. The crushed leaves and stems from Spotted Jewelweed are a folk antidote to poison ivy.
You will also find Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), an invasive species that can carpet the forest floor throughout the park; it is particularly noticeable along the River Trail. The park hosts the Southeast Coast Exotic Plant Management Team to stop the spread of invasive plant species in southeast parks, but stiltgrass, as a fast-spreading annual, has proven particularly difficult to control.
Site 2: Boggy Gut and Ole Man Rogan
You will pick up Boggy Gut on your left and follow it all the way to the river. At points where the trail comes close to the gut, take a detour for a look; you may catch a glimpse of a wading bird such as a Great Blue Heron or Yellow-crowned Night Heron, or a Barred Owl ambush-hunting for crayfish and salamanders.
Boggy Gut is said to be the home of the spirit of Ole Man Rogan. The local area is rich with African-American history and folklore. One of the haunt stories told is about a cruel slave trader, Ole Man Rogan, who lived in the area. According to the tale, Ole Man Rogan relished buying and then separating slave families by selling family members to different owners. Ole Man Rogan also loved fishing on Boggy Gut. After he died, Ole Man Rogan’s restless spirit was doomed, whether by heaven or hell, to wander Boggy Gut forever because of his cruelty. The rattle of chains, the cries of separated children, and Ole Man’s Rogan cruel laughter are said to be heard along Boggy Gut. This story reflects a theme regularly contained in African-American folklore of the eternal punishment for slave traders and others who were cruel in life. This story and others can be found in Tales of Congaree, a two-volume set of folklore compiled by E.C.L. (Ned) Adams from local residents, including Thaddeus Goodson.
Site 3: Large Cherrybark Oak
Traveling along the trail, you pass a Cherrybark Oak, one of the larger hardwoods in the park. This tree, over 23 feet in circumference, shows the graceful branching habit typical of cherrybarks. Cherrybark Oak is one of the more valuable hardwoods found in the park, and its wood was harvested for veneer in the furniture trade. A little further along, we will have the opportunity to see an even larger tree.
A little past the Cherrybark Oak, look for an unusual multi-trunked Baldcypress to your left along the edge of the Boggy Gut. Baldcypress decays slowly, so much so that lumber from baldcypress has been called “the wood eternal”. Historically, baldcypress was highly prized for shingles used in roofing and siding. The late 19th century and early 20th century logging industry claimed many of the baldcypress trees in the southeastern United States, so that trees in Congaree National Park are some of the last remaining old-growth baldcypress trees on U.S. soil.
Site 4 (Optional): Largest Cherrybark Oak in the park
There is an opportunity for a short off-trail excursion that should only be undertaken if you have a working compass (electronic or otherwise) or GPS. You will be no more than a couple hundred yards off trail and it is easy to retrace your steps and rediscover the trail, but it is very easy to lose your sense of direction in the park and you should not venture off trail without the help of navigational aids.
You know to depart the trail when the trail jogs to the right around a large tip-up (the trunk and root mass of a large fallen tree), with a large cherrybark oak and a small holly tree with a light blue trail blaze immediately to the right of the trail (see photo). If you are good with trees, you will notice a tulip poplar growing next to the cherrybark; these trees are unusual to find in the floodplain. From here, head straight north and in 275 yards, you will find the cherrybark; the habitat is relatively open here, and the tree is hard to miss. In fact, the open habitat makes this tree easier to photograph than most of the other champion-class trees in the park. At over 25 feet around and more than 125 feet tall, it is a national co-champion tree and the largest hardwoods in the park.
The national champion tree register is maintained by American Forest; trees are nominated based on diameter, crown spread, and height. Congaree National Park currently has 4 national champions and over 30 state champions. Its champion-class trees are particularly noteworthy for their unusual height, as the park preserves one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies in the world. Most champion trees are found in a very different environment from the park; in open settings such as city parks or cemeteries that allow them to grow out rather than up.
Turn directly south (consult your compass or GPS) and return to the trail.
Site 5: Large American Beech
Shortly after crossing a small gut that drains Pearson Pond to the north, you will see a large American Beech on your right, recognizable by its smooth, light gray bark. It is one of only a few American Beech in the park that measure more than 10 feet in circumference. Within the park, beech can be found on the bluff and elevated ridges of the floodplain, as they cannot tolerate prolonged wet, anaerobic soil conditions. American beech trees produce small, brown edible nuts, which are easy to identify due to their spiky, angular husks. These nuts are an important food source for birds and squirrels within the park, and were also a source of food for Native Americans. The attractive light tan fall foliage remains on the trees well into winter, and is another useful identification tool.
Site 6: Trail Junction
At the trail junction, we will turn left, or clockwise and follow a 3.7-mile loop back to this point. You will pass several large hardwoods here, including a pair of large beech, more large cherrybark, and a big Shumard Oak; the first portion of the River Trail provides a good example of the old-growth bottomland hardwood forest that the park preserves.
Site 7: Congaree River and River Levee Forest
You eventually glimpse sight of the Congaree River through the foliage and have reasonable views from this first sighting. The trail now follows the river for over a mile, though direct views from the trail are few; don’t worry, as you will be able to see as much of the river as you want from the sandbar, provided it is not flooded.
The riverbank is actually one of the most elevated areas of the floodplain. During floods, when sediment-rich river water spills over the river, the sudden change in speed and direction causes the river to deposit proportionally more of its sediment along the riverbank than other parts of the floodplain. The sediment particles are larger and coarser-grained, too, so soil conditions along the river lead to a substantially different vegetative community than found in other parts of the floodplain. Species such as silver maple and ash-leaf maple common in the overstory here, while this is one of the few places in the park to find black walnut. Spicebush is by far the dominant understory shrub, with its branches arching across the trail. The bush derives its name from the aromatic scent of the leaves when crushed. The red berries are attractive to birds, and spicebush serves as the larval food plant for the beautiful Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.
Many bird species use the river edge to forage and nest. The riverbank attracts breeding American Redstart, which usually breed farther to the northwest. Swainson’s Warbler seem to like the shrub cover here and a few of these secretive warblers can be heard in the spring and summer.
Site 8: Sandbar
You will see a sign indicating a side trail to your left that leads to the sandbar. When the river level is moderate, it may at first seem as though there is no sandbar to be seen, but pick your way downstream for 100 yards, and under most water conditions, you will find a substantial sandbar. Plan to take a nice long break here—it’s a relaxing spot and there is a lot to see.
The Congaree River has been cutting southwest across the floodplain for twenty-thousand years. In places downstream, the river erodes 150-foot bluffs built up of sediments over 50 million years old. Sandbars develop along the inner edge of river bends (meanders) as the river cut into the opposite bank and a distinct ridge-and-swale pattern develops inside the meander as successive sandbars form. As you walk the bar, you will notice that the upper end of the bar has coarse gravel mixed with the sand; this gravel substrate provides attractive nesting for some fish species, including the endangered Shortnose Sturgeon, which breeds in this portion of the Congaree River.
Note the black willow trees and shrubs, the first trees to colonize sandbars; you may also find cockleburs here, a favored food of the extinct Carolina Parakeet. You should also see large freshwater mussel shells, including the yellow shell of the threatened Yellow Lampmussel. Mixed in with the mussel shells are the smaller shells of the invasive Asian clam. Fragments of Native American pottery are likely to turn up as well; these fragments have been washed miles downstream from eroding riverbanks upstream. Despite the lack of contextual information, it is illegal to collect pottery sherds; take a photo instead. The pottery sherds are likely to come from the Archaic period up to 8000 years ago, though Woodlands (up to 3000 years old) and Mississippian (up to 1000 years old) cultures can also be represented.
While on the sandbar, look for soaring Osprey, Anhinga or Bald Eagle among the more numerous Black Vulture and Turkey Vulture. Other species such as swallows, Belted Kingfisher, or Double-crested Cormorant may fly by.
Site 9: Western Boundary Road and Boat Ramp
After leaving the sandbar, turn left to continue on the trail. In a short while, the trail will turn right and join a gravel road (Western Boundary Road) north, which travels all the way from the river to Old Bluff Road at the park’s Bannister Bridge canoe/kayak landing. The Western Boundary Road lies mostly on park property, but access on the private portion of the road is currently prohibited for park visitors. At some point in the future, there is hope that the park will be able to provide visitor access to the Western Boundary Road from Bannister Bridge.
Before continuing on the trail/road, you should turn south and quickly inspect the boat ramp. The sediment on the ramp may make this difficult, but it does provide a final view of the river. The former hunt club, the United States Hunt Club, would use the ramp both for launching boats and ferrying equipment across the river; when you resume your way on the trail, you may see the old windlasses used to pull barges across the river; the club also maintained a small clubhouse at this site, in addition to its main clubhouse at the former hunt club clearing you passed earlier. The USGS maintains a river gage here that has been in use since the 1980’s.
Turn around and head north on the River Trail/Western Boundary Road. This area of the park is good habitat for Wild Turkey, and you have a reasonable chance of seeing them crossing the road.
Site 10: Trail Junction
Look for a trail sign as the River Trail turns right off the Western Boundary Road. The trail follows Hammond Gut and then Shallow Gut until reaching the southern bank of Duck Pond. Along this stretch of the road, you should see substantial stands of switchcane. Cane provides critical nesting and foraging habitat for wildlife, and serves as host plant for several species of butterflies.
Native Americans managed canebrakes with controlled fires to encourage further growth, in part because canebrakes were excellent habitat for game. But canebrakes declined as early settlers used the cane for livestock forage and plowed it under for agriculture, particularly since the presence of cane was considered a sign of rich soil.
Swamp Chestnut Oak, an oak with light bark and large sweet acorns, is one of the more prevalent overstory trees on this portion of the trail. Its common names of Basket Oak and Cow Oak suggest both one of the uses for its wood, as well as its value for animal forage.
Site 11: Duck Pond
Duck Pond is a natural water body that was once part of the main Congaree River channel. These ponds or sloughs are cut-off channels that likely start as oxbow lakes, then slowly fill in. The ponds are dominated by water tupelo and baldcypress, two species of trees that are especially adapted to the wet conditions found here. Water tupelo have large leaves and curved trunks, while Baldcypress have straight trunks, feathery needles and numerous surrounding knees. This is wonderful habitat for Wood Duck, and if you look closely, you may see some swimming in Duck Pond, though you are more likely to hear the hens’ screams as they fly away at your approach.
A short while past Duck Pond, you should find yourself back at the trail junction; retrace your steps to the Visitor Center.